Lightweight helmets for Canadian soldiers

March 01, 2012— Ottawa, Ontario

A new generation of lightweight helmets developed for Canadian soldiers could reduce the risk of head injuries sustained when military vehicles are struck by improvised explosive devices (IEDs). 

In Afghanistan, roadside IEDs have claimed many casualties, but not always from the fragments generated during an explosion: the actual force of the explosion on the vehicle can result in impact injuries and concussions for the occupants. A combat helmet provides a certain level of protection against these impacts, so the Department of National Defence (DND) requires soldiers to wear helmets when travelling. However, the coverage and weight of the helmet pose a burden on soldiers, particularly in extremely hot environments.  Reducing the weight and increasing the protection offered by combat helmets are top priorities for DND. 

In 2007, Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC), the research arm of DND, initiated a project to explore a new design for a more comfortable, lightweight helmet with a modular design. The helmet concept included an inner shell optimized for impact that soldiers would wear inside a vehicle, an outer ballistic shell designed to provide more protection during combat, as well as other protective modules (a ballistic visor, nape guard and mandible guard). This allows the degree of coverage, protection and weight to be tailored for specific missions. 

Soldier testing new helmet

The new lightweight modular helmet undergoes field testing at the DRDC Valcartier facility in Quebec. Photo courtesy of DRDC Valcartier.

“DRDC has plenty of knowledge about protective headwear systems as well as ballistics testing and modelling, but wanted to team up with experts in advanced materials,” says Sylvain Labonté, a project manager at the National Research Council’s advanced materials facility in Boucherville, Quebec. “We have in-depth expertise in materials design, formulation, testing and characterization. We know the manufacturing processes and we also have facilities to fabricate the prototypes.” 

Labonté’s team, consisting of researchers from across NRC, started by screening what was commercially available but discovered that no existing materials performed well enough to meet DND’s requirements. As a result, the team set out to develop new materials in collaboration with three Canadian weavers. “From there, we formulated our own composites and tested them,” he says. 

The NRC and DRDC researchers ended up creating a lightweight modular combat helmet, made of a fibre-reinforced composite material that NRC is preparing for licensing. According to Labonté, “the new design has more or less the same weight as the currently fielded helmet but offers better protection and functionalities than the helmet now used by Canadian soldiers.” Best of all, its inner shell “is much lighter than what they wear right now,” he adds. In fact, NRC and DRDC are now exploring ways to further improve helmet performance using advanced materials. 

Last September, NRC provided 30 complete and fully functional prototypes to soldiers for field evaluation. The helmets are currently undergoing destructive testing in the final phase of the project.

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada

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